On Tuesday I was lucky enough to have the opportunity of visiting the Parliamentary Archives. My research purpose was to check out the Proxy Books covering the House of Lords career of the 2nd Earl of Chatham (1778 – 1835), but since I was on the spot I decided to order up Chatham’s official House of Lords Pedigree as well.
The practice of delivering Pedigrees when a new peer took his seat in Parliament dates back to a House Standing Order of 11 May 1767, designed to put an end to succession disputes and confusion over descent. The practice of record-keeping by the Office of Heralds had lapsed over the centuries, and the importance of tracing accurate lineage was increased by the fact the House of Lords was both a political and a legal institution.
The Standing Order required “that Garter King of Arms do officially attend this House upon the day and at the time of the first admission of every Peer, whether by creation or descent, and that he do then and there deliver in at the table a Pedigree of the Family of such Peer, fairly described on vellum”, covering the peer’s parents, siblings, spouses, children, and so on, “according to seniority, down to the day on which such Pedigree shall be so delivered in”. Each peer was permitted to prove his Pedigree before the Committee of Privileges, and a copy of the Pedigree would be kept with the Records of the House of Lords and the Office of Arms.
I was hoping to settle a point that has been bothering me for a long time. A few days ago I blogged for Chatham’s birthday, and explained my reasons for believing him to have been be born on 10 October 1756. His father wrote several letters on that date announcing his birth, and when he was baptised on 7 November, the 10th October was recorded as his date of birth. However, his family celebrated his 17th birthday on 9 October 1773, and nearly everyone since has followed that lead.
I therefore hoped that seeing the Pedigree might help settle the issue, and I was not disappointed. It seems Chatham’s registered date of birth is incorrect: the date of birth he provided the House of Lords, and declared “to be true to the best of my knowledge Information and Belief, upon my Honor” was — 9 October 1756. This, to me, seems to be a clear-cut case. It does not matter if Chatham was actually born on the 9th, or 10th, October, or bang on midnight (which is the most likely explanation of what happened): he believed his birthday to fall on 9 October, and that’s good enough for me.
If that was all, this post would be much shorter than it is. But I was so utterly breathtaken by the sheer beauty of the thing laid before me on the desk that I felt moved to purchase a photograph licence, and then to request permission to reproduce the images on this blog (graciously granted).
The Pedigree, on fine vellum as required by the 1767 Standing Order, was bound in tooled leather with fifty others spanning the period 1784-91. I am not kidding when I tell you it took both my strength and that of one of the archivists to wrestle it out of the box and onto the table.
And truly, these photographs do not do it justice. The whole thing — every one of the fifty-one pedigrees in the box — was painted and written by hand. (They cost £20 to draw up, not an inconsiderable sum.) There was shiny gold leaf. There was calligraphy. There was — beauty. There is no other word for it.
Here is Chatham’s crest, complete with Garter.
The photograph does not really show the gold leaf on the Earl’s coronet and Garter, which frankly elevated this from “gorgeous” to “stunning”, in my opinion.
But what totally melted me was the combined Chatham/Townshend crest to represent any future offspring of Chatham’s marriage to Mary Elizabeth Townshend (there wouldn’t be any, of course, but since Mary was only 28 in March 1791, nobody could have known that):
The other Pedigrees in the book were equally beautiful, but as this was the one I wanted to see, I spent a good long while examining it and just drinking it in. I do not think I have been so entranced by a historical document for a long time.
Beautiful — just beautiful. I’m so glad I’m able to share it.
The Earl of Chatham’s Pedigree (endorsed 11 May 1791) is in the Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/22/1/3 f 42. All photographs used here were taken by me and reproduced with kind permission of the Parliamentary Archives.
 William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England III, 11th edn (London, 1791), pp. 105-6
 John Palmer, The Practice in the House of Lords of Appeals, Writs of Error, and Claims of Peerage … (London, 1830), pp. 341-3